PHILADELPHIA — The Sabres had pulled within a goal Thursday during a game in which they likely deserved a better fate.
But in the waning seconds of the second period, Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov, as he has often done, delivered the dagger. Kucherov, 23, collected the puck in the high slot, spun to the left circle and scored on a wrist shot through traffic, helping seal a 4-1 victory. He didn't smile, or even say a word, in the ensuing celebration.
The soft-spoken Russian lets his play do the talking. And in the biggest moments, Kucherov is the loudest, his three winning goals tied for the NHL lead entering Friday. Nobody has more goals (21) and multipoint games (13) in the past two postseasons than Kucherov.
"That's why Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. He made a bunch of clutch shots and is a phenomenal player," coach Jon Cooper said. "That's why Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, you go down the list. They're all great hockey players. Some guys just have a knack to rise above the rest.
"You go around the NHL, every team has one or maybe two guys. 'Kuch' is one of those."
With captain Steven Stamkos out for about four months after Thursday's knee surgery, the timing is perfect for Kucherov to be playing some of the best hockey of his career. He entered Friday tied for the NHL lead in scoring with 22 points. If Tampa Bay is going to survive again without Stamkos, Kucherov is going to have to be a go-to-guy.
"(He is) as good as you will see in this league the way he's been playing," center Brian Boyle said. "He just keeps getting better and better. He's dynamic. When he's going, we're rolling."
During the Lightning's three-game winning streak, Kucherov has six points (four goals). That includes the go-ahead goal with a minute left in a 4-3 win against Detroit on Tuesday, the game in which Stamkos got hurt in the first period and Kucherov logged 23:46 of ice time.
"He's been on fire," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's a tremendous player, a game-changer. Not afraid to make plays. He's in the right place at the right time. When I'm on the ice with him, I always try to get him the puck."
As dynamic a scorer Kucherov is, with 59 goals in the past two regular seasons, his teammates point out how underrated he is in his zone. Hedman said Kucherov reminds him of former Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk in how he craftily sneaks up behind opponents and lifts their sticks to steal the puck.
Kucherov said playing well in his zone is his first priority and he often derives confidence from it that fuels his scoring: "If you play 'D' well, then offense will come."
Kucherov, with a team-high nine goals, looks like he might be a bargain for the three-year, $4.76 million annual deal he signed in October.
"He's very, very skilled, obviously," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "He's extremely intelligent, and he works really hard. He's really self-motivated and very demanding of himself, and pushes himself to want to be really, really good and do whatever it takes to be really good. He's playing tremendous hockey in all facets of the game."
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Cooper said, "If you're reeling off names of the top players in the league, you'd be remiss if (Kucherov) is not mentioned in that breath. He wants to be a hockey player, not just a goal scorer. And there's a big difference. I think now it's just all paying off for him."
And the Lightning.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Nesterov 2 (Filppula, Drouin), 8:15. Penalties—Koekkoek, TB, (holding stick), 10:18; Sustr, TB, (interference), 13:44; Grant, BUF, (hooking), 17:05.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Killorn 7 (Filppula, Point), 7:39 (pp). 3, Buffalo, Franson 1 (Fedun, Kane), 12:50 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 9 (Killorn), 19:42. Penalties—Okposo, BUF, (holding), 6:05; Point, TB, (hooking), 11:00; Hedman, TB, (roughing), 11:00; Larsson, BUF, (roughing), 11:00.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Point 2 (Johnson), 18:00 (pp). Penalties—Sustr, TB, (tripping), 2:55; Garrison, TB, (high sticking), 7:46; Franson, BUF, (delay of game), 16:59. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 11-16-11—38. Buffalo 15-10-8—33. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 2 of 3; Buffalo 1 of 5. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 7-5-0 (33 shots-32 saves). Buffalo, Lehner 4-7-2 (38-34).